Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Historical Bollocks

Two movies seen somewhat recently that I'd recommend despite the questionable accuracy of what's depicted.

Inglourious Basterds.
I like Quentin Tarantino's work thought I'm not quite the slavering fanboy who thinks he can do no wrong. I always find his films interesting though the cine-referential (and fan-referential) stuff is getting tired. I wish he'd take a break and do a movie that at least felt like it was its own piece and not an homage to a film or genre he enjoyed in the grindhouses and video stores of his youth.

Basterds is another pastiche/homage film. Not of one genre mind you, but a sort of mash-up of B-movie war film and spaghetti western. It is also a thorough re-imagining of history. Tarantino typically sets his films in modern times and contexts, date undetermined and unimportant. The Kill Bill volumes had the most fantastical setting up to this point, contemporary with the year of release but allowing for other-than-factual abilities, organisations, and characters. Nothing he's done previously had a true historical background with the people and plot (fictitious or otherwise) placed squarely in a known timeline.

That sort of changes with Basterds. I honestly was expecting the patented Tarantino characters and story shoehorned somewhere within a recognisable WW2 chronology. Y'know, not a 'real' story but one that, however loosely it played with history, still fit what we basically know about the war and its major players. Instead this is WW2 as Tarantino wishes it had been. Up to the point where the Basterds are actually injected into service, it is probably the war we all know. After that it becomes a landscape of violent possibilities that sort of resembles WW2. And that's okay. I was surprised that it basically turned into a fantasy film, but it wasn't bad. Unlike most people I wasn't expecting the film to be full of profanity and violence. Tarantino has a reputation for it, and the trailer made it look like that was going to be the hook for the movie-- justified brutality on the Nazis amongst a lot of F-bombs. But I knew from previous experience, and a decent memory for all his filmography not just Kill Bill, that the violence was likely to be explosive but limited.

As expected the dialogue and plot twists are high points, but I'll add my voice to the chorus claiming the tension in two parts of the movie are probably the best reasons for viewing. The opening and the meeting in the bar. These are both scenes where you know something bad is going to happen, particularly the opener, but the tension is excruciating. In a manner only Tarantino can really pull off, the situations are unlikely and exaggerated by the personalities involved... but thoroughly believable too.

There isn't really anything I can add that you can't find a thousand people already saying on the internet. To me, the movie was worth seeing. It is EXACTLY what someone can expect from Tarantino's first 'historical' film, but only if you ignore the trailer and use his past work to inform your expectations. Despite the fact that it covers new contextual territory for the director it is STILL very much aware of its inspirations and never really lets you forget that... if one is at all familiar with the sources themselves. If you aren't, then this'll just seem like a movie with some weird choices. I'd still like to see the man make a film that doesn't wear its film geek references all over itself, but that might not be really possible for him to do. Rob Zombie has a similar approach to making a film, but I think he's more successful at integrating the fan stuff in a way that doesn't jerk you out of the story.

Kingdom of Heaven.
Ridley Scott is hit-or-miss for me. Some of his films are on my all-time favorite list and some are just 'meh'. Count me as one of the very few who seem to just not get all the hubbub around Gladiator. I didn't think it was bad. The liberties with history didn't bother me, though I did notice them. I just didn't see what all the fuss was about. I think Kingdom of Heaven is a much better film, but only if you get the Director's Cut.

Again the internet can make all my points for me in more detail than I care to repeat, but the Director's Cut adds about 45 minutes back into this movie that make all the difference in the world. I saw the theatrical version originally and felt basically the same as I did about Gladiator, though I thought Russell Crowe was a stronger lead for his role than Orlando Bloom is in KOH. The movie was 'okay'. I'm helping my son be a knight for Halloween this year, so building his helmet has gotten me in the mood for a 'medieval' film, and it had to have 'knights' in it as opposed to good-but-no-knights-medieval films like The Name of the Rose. I'm not exactly sure what prompted me to try KOH again. I think I read somewhere that the Director's Cut was just so much better and I may have retconned my own memory to believe THAT'S the one I watched before. But wow, is that some bullshit. This is a completely different film.

Count all motivations and backstories for all characters established, lack thereof being a serious criticism of the theatrical version, but that is to be expected if you look into the story behind the editing of the film. And after successes like Blade Runner and Gladiator, can't the studios just let the man release his vision intact? Cripes.

So much is filled in now. It even helps everyone's performance. The historical accuracy is still dodgy, most particularly with the who of Orlando Bloom's character, but the Director's Cut even puts some events and outcomes back right, where they were incorrect or just inconclusive in the theatrical cut. In some ways a movie like this 'historical epic' is kind of like Inglorious Basterds, a (somewhat) fantastical reimagining of the actual events. It is more noticeable in Basterds because the events are closer to being contemporary, and so better documented and more firmly covered in our education. KOH doesn't take quite the wild swing with history that Basterds does... though I'm sure a lot of Crusades scholars would take issue with me... the major events in the story DO go the way they do in history, most of the inaccuracies are Hollywood's usual simplification of characters and re-envisioning relationships (ie there's no basis to believe the lead character actually had the depicted romance with the leading lady). But the actual politics of the time were quite complicated and something has to be done to bold-stroke the facts and figures so that you don't need the kind of scorecard that is de rigeur for a BBC miniseries.

The only really jarring thing that still exists for me watching KOH is the rather modern views the movie espouses from the mouths of the characters. This anachronistic trope is frequently embodied in female characters who conform to modern sensibilities of the independent woman. See Kiera Knightly's characters in King Arthur or The Duchess. See also Scorcese's The Age of Innocence for a woman realistically fucked over by trying to be just that modern in a period setting.

Though KOH does have a female character attempting a form of independence, the anachronistic philosphising mentioned stem from the characters reacting to the film's central theme of religious conflict (or the place of spiritual beliefs in personal conduct). I'm pretty sure there actually were people with nuanced views of their own church or of the enemy (the Muslims) around the time of the 3rd Crusade. There'd have to be. People back in the day weren't without intelligent, reasoning individuals. But there are Hollywood-coincidence levels of keen observation amongst the good guys about the similarities between Muslim and Christian, a lot of talk about the importance of maintaining the peace above all else, and how the Church's warlike stance is in direct opposition to Christ's teachings. None of this viewpoint is actually disagreeable to me or the majority of filmgoers in essence. And I guess there's an aspect of like-minded people congregating if an apologist needs a rationale. It just struck me as an awful lot of careful espousing of politically-correct thinking. There IS a lot of 'kill the infidel' talk on the part of the Europeans (and a pointed, politically-correct absence of it from the Muslims), but it is also clearly drawn as hate speech. There is little attempt to show shades of gray, say a follower of the Church who wants the Holy Land to be Muslim-free, but would prefer NOT to slay women and children to do it. There had to be many, MANY Crusaders (military and civilian, titled and vulgar) who felt 'liberating' Jerusalem and surrounds through violence or the threat of violence was necessary or righteous, but unfortunate.

Now clearly Ridley Scott et al did not set out to produce a documentary. As one of the staff put it, 'just because we didn't put something in the movie doesn't mean we didn't know about it'. And the wealth of historical comparison info that has been put into DVD extras clearly indicates that the movie makers are not afraid of their choices either. They set out to entertain but also make an allegorical statement about the tension that exists today and has always existed in the Middle East. This film is a pretty good way to remind modern audiences that conflict over Israel is a deeply-rooted fiber in history. Like Basterds, the setting of KOH is fantastical in a sense (the scale of some of the castles and cities, the modern thinking, the relationships, etc), but I'd now rate the Director's Cut much higher than the theatrical cut both for conveying something real about its themes and as an entertaining film.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Hardcore Means You Show Penetration

In any fandom these days it seems like there is some sort of demarcation that separates the ‘true’ fans from the johnny-come-latelys. Y’know that thing that lets old-timers say ‘back when things were good’ or lets fans of any seniority claim elite knowledge because they know about super-obscure such-and-such.

In Japan, the root definition of ‘otaku’ before the West prettied it up was ‘maniac’… as in ‘detail obsessor that needs to get a life’. The Japanese can pursue an area of interest with a single-minded zeal that inhabitants in few other countries can approach. I suspect fat, middle-aged British and American military history collectors can come pretty damn close.

But it you follow discussions and articles on the internet or in periodicals, you can sure find a lot of fans acting like maniacs about their chosen interest (read: passion). There’s a lot of foaming at the mouth about how things ain’t like they used to be, the big companies only put out crap that’s sinking the industry, competition and innovation is being stifled, if you don’t listen to/play/buy X then you are a tasteless fuck and fuck those tasteless fucks anyway.

Here’s what I have to say to all of that: ‘Don’t fall in love with anything that can’t love you back.’.

I have an awful lot of stuff I’m into. Some of it I’m ‘passionate’ about. But y’know what? If they were to stop making, updating, or continuing ANY of it… I might not like it, but I’d survive.

NONE of the issues we have with our interests is worth rising emotionally to a level beyond annoyance. Really. And fans that disagree with you, or heaven forbid contribute money to something you don’t like? Disagree with their choice sure… but why slag on 'em?

‘They aren’t members of MY community motherfucker!’


The original motivation for this post was for me to get some thoughts out on the whole 'hardcore versus casual' debate in video games. But I realized this argumentative tendency is not exclusive to the gaming community and in fact is typical of any organized fandom. And for what? Is any of this shit really that important? I was going to get into some crap about how we should be open-minded, or people’s definition of good, quality, or fun is different, or how the voices of minority jerks tend to drown out the majority of level-headed people. True as all of that might be, it ultimately doesn’t matter.

Music is fun. Video games are fun. Movies, and books, and anime, and militaria, and all that stuff is fun. Or it should be. I think we get so heated or obsessive as fans that we lose sight of the fun part. But I guess bitching about tasteless fucks is fun too. Or it must be to a lot of people anyway. When you find that little corner of interest you feel you can call your own you get pretty defensive… or offensive. Even if no one is really attacking you. Even if the companies really don’t have it in for you.

Music might be a little different. Because music reaches a little deeper and can affect outlook, dress, attitudes, and a host of other things on a more fundamental level than other interests. It is possible for other pastimes to have that effect, literature and manga/anime come to mind, but with music it is common for one’s lifestyle to be thematically tied. This has also led to very real persecution. If you wear another music-influenced lifestyle openly into a deeply redneck bar you could have a few problems before you find your way out again. A music fan might get a pass on feeling bent towards certain other subcultures… but they still have no excuse for assholery towards fellow genre citizens. Not known for their subtlety most of the time, metalheads (my most closely-identified musical affiliation) are a real collision of solidarity and ‘you listen to those faggots?’.

I often find myself getting really interested in something only to find it go mainstream soon after. It is kind of a joke among friends of mine actually. Like I’m a barometer for the next big thing. But I’m also a supporter of stuff that flares up into popularity and then dies out. And I’m okay with that. Whatever happens with video games, or kaiju films, or manga, and all that stuff, I STILL have the things that made me a fan in the first place. In the case of some things like music or video games I’ll never own it all. Never ‘complete’ the collection. Even if these things stopped getting made this very second. And no one can take my interest away from me. I might grow out of something… or give up on it. That’s up to me. Arguably, Sony ‘fanboys’ may have helped kill of my beloved Sega consoles, but I can still play those consoles. I can buy more games for them. Nothing changes the fact that, for me, they are great machines.

On a gaming forum, I asked for some definitions of ‘hardcore’ versus ‘casual’. The battle between these two extremes has permeated message boards, magazines, conversation… all levels of video game discourse. I can’t pick up a gaming periodical that doesn’t have some mention of this issue. It seems to mostly center around the Nintendo wii and DSi and the manufacturer’s strategy of really reaching beyond the dependable core game audience. The fear is that all this catering to the so-called casual gamer is diluting the resources needed for companies to continue to produce the games ‘true’ gamers really want. There was some good points made about how the definition of ‘hardcore’ and ‘casual’ have probably changed in common usage, and whether people on said forum actually self-identify as ‘hardcore’ themselves. Ironically, as I’ve found in discussions on music or lifestyle or tabletop wargaming, or any fandom, most discussers eschew labels’themselves or FOR themselves, but don’t actually have too much of a problem applying them to other people… usually toward the negative if their ire has been raised.

And that brings me around to my real main point again. I guess I’m at a loss as to why our ire does get raised most of the time. I mean, if someone personally insults you, fair enough. But whether Sony is out to screw you with the PSPgo and its new software system… what does it matter? Don’t buy it! Your world won’t end!

I remember reading on some Nintendo site a while back: ‘its like I’ve always said, Nintendo just wants your money, and they’ll do what they have to to screw you’.

Like you’ve ALWAYS said? How much fucking mind time do you spend contemplating Nintendo and its corporate ways? Newsflash! Nintendo and all other companies that SELL something are out to make money. Sometimes they do it in a ‘good way’ and sometimes the do it in a ‘bad way’. It is subjective at any give time when a marketing move is good or bad. The beauty of our consumer society is that you can vote with your dollar. Don’t like it? Don’t buy it. Particularly on these elective entertainment ‘fanboy’ pursuits. If your geek object fades away into obscurity because it just isn’t marketable to the legion of tasteless fucks, you will live. I'd like to assume that 'like I've always said' is hyperbole on the part of the writer, but you still have to wonder just how many times they have actually come 'round to that topic, and if it is just as cathartic now as the first time they typed it?

I spent a lot of years working for Games Workshop, a magnet for nerds and fanboys feeling betrayed by marketing decisions. My time there really gave me an appreciation for what company staff really feel and go through when they have to deal with rabid fandom. I will never say a bad word about my time with GW. I loved it there, and I still love the company and the people I worked with. How often will you read THAT on the internet, GW gamers? You don’t really know what the hell is going on inside a company to bring it to the decisions in makes. While I worked there you wouldn't believe the 'truth' I heard from gamers supposedly in-the-know about what my own company was doing. They'd walk up to me at conventions and say 'is the reason you changed the models for blah-blah army because the sculptor has a heroin habit? That's what GW staffer 'X' told me!'. WTF NERD?!

Not all the decisions will be good ones, but seeing a place have to pay its employees, provide insurance, ensure safety, stay in budget, satisfy customer service, etc etc. can really open your eyes.

I don’t actually think there is anything wrong with geeking out over stuff. Or making your pastimes important. If you don’t let it rule your whole life, obsessing over the ephemera of such-and-such can be fun. And a real social rallying point… or a social disaster depending on how you handle it. Context people. Not everyone wants to know the details of your 42nd level monk/thief. But these things don’t REALLY matter. Not next to the loss of life in a terrorist bombing, or a child being diagnosed with cancer. Now if someone goes on a message board for supporting cancer victims and says ‘fuck malignant lymphoma’ I am not going to say a word.

This whole ‘blog is about being hardcore about this thing or that. I’ve spewed out a lot of words here. But I’m the last person in the world who’d say any of it is actually important. My perspective isn’t the last word, but gaining some kind of realistic perspective should probably be the goal of anyone who has spent time in a flame war over a video game or feels betrayed by a faceless corporation.

Uh, assuming you didn’t just get fired from there that is. THAT'S important and you might have a case for slagging then.

If whatever you love sells out and gets all shitty. Move on. Make note of it wherever you have to, to whomever you feel, but try not to waste a lot of energy on it. You might need that energy for when your Mom dies in a car accident tomorrow.